Recognizing Boarding Schools’ Psychic Toll in China


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A boy balances on bed frames while others play card games in the dormitory of their boarding school in Hunan Province, China. Boarding children under the age of six is less common now than before, but remains a respectable option.

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Imaginechina, via Associated Press

BEIJING — The emotional disintegration of a 17-month-old boy named John as he sought and failed to find comfort from caregivers in a British boarding nursery, captured in a 1969 documentary film, deeply distressed the Chinese women at a seminar last week on early childhood separation.

It showed in hard-to-watch detail the damage that can be inflicted when young children lose their primary caregivers. John’s anguish was extreme. He cried for days, refused food and withdrew.

One woman at the seminar, which was offered at a Beijing university and attended mostly by mothers and professional caregivers, took off her glasses and hid her face in her hands for a long time.

Another stared straight ahead, tearing up.

A third asked, somewhat frantically, whether John had healed later. The answer — that he had not, entirely — from the teacher, Alf Gerlach, a psychoanalyst at the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt, was met with quiet consternation.

Millions of Chinese who attended boarding nurseries and preschools after the Communist revolution in 1949, when large-scale systems of institutional care were established to free parents to pursue revolution or to labor, experienced John’s plight to some degree.

The generation most deeply affected may be those born in the early decades after 1949, as the boarding system spread unquestioned — those in their 50s and 60s who run the country today.

But the women at the seminar, who ranged from young adults to middle age, all had stories of losing primary caregivers, or of being forced to separate from their own children because of rules barring parents from staying with their hospitalized children.

Boarding school is less common now for those under 6 but is still considered a respectable option. Even Chinese millennials may have been sent as toddlers. It is widespread among children 6 and older.

Hoping to understand more about the development of the system in China, I visited the Beijing municipal archives on Archive Road.

There, documents showed that, at top institutions in the city after the revolution, the caregiver-to-child ratios — John’s problem had been a lack of attention — were initially high. Mostly, the children of the elite were sent away. The children of ordinary citizens were cared for at home.

A 1958 State Council document recorded a 1-to-2 ratio in 1956 at a nursery run by the Ministry of Agriculture. But colder times began with the 1958 “double-anti” campaign against “waste and conservatism.”

Spending on food and board was cut everywhere, the document showed. The caregiver ratio at the ministry nursery went to 1-to-5.5 that year. The authorities promised to get it to 1-to-5.9, in line with “rectification.”

Conditions in less privileged preschools grew grim as the authorities pushed to institutionalize large numbers of children to free parents to meet higher production quotas during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961.

Another document, dated 1960, noted: “The problem now is that the development of boarding nurseries isn’t keeping up with the development of the needs of production.” Facilities were built quickly but were “small and cramped.” Only 26 percent were “good.” In Beijing, 400,000 children needed preschool places immediately, the document said. With the able-bodied working in fields or factories, the caregivers were often old or sick. At one preschool, the document said, six children drowned in one summer and three got food poisoning, with one dying.

Conditions have improved drastically since then, but loyalty to the system remains. An article published one week before school began on Sept. 1, by Shilehui, a website for preschool educators, addressed the issue.

Hardly any parent likes to send a young child to be boarded, it said. But in the interests of “objectivity,” it listed three advantages: Boarding helps children become more independent and less finicky and make more friends.

Little John’s experience shows it also can have negative emotional outcomes. And the reactions of the women attending the course suggest that many Chinese parents know it.

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